Japan needed organisation, composure and courage to get over the line against South Africa. We detail an enthralling final ten minutes that saw all those attributes come to the fore.
If the endgame of these global tournaments is to catapult the sport into the wider consciousness and inspire fresh fans, Rugby World Cup 2015 may have already reached a zenith.
A 34-32 victory for Japan over South Africa was an occasion that enraptured and intoxicated every neutral onlooker – from former Webb Ellis trophy-winner Jonny Wilkinson to those still uncertain of how many points a try is worth.
Brighton‘s superb 30,000-seater stadium hosted a truly historic happening. But as much as this exuded the charm of a classic underdog triumph, the result also bore hallmarks of meticulous coaching and gritty graft.
In the ten minutes between Handre Pollard‘s penalty to put the Springboks 32-29 up and the final whistle, Japan were wonderfully precise. It was a period that epitomised the qualities they had demonstrated throughout the tie.
What is more, they hauled themselves back into the lead to snatch success after three hugely influential figures – hooker Shota Horie, lock Hitoshi Ono and scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka – had been replaced. Here is a recap of how Japan shocked the planet.
Pinpoint restart and pestering
Restarts now sit pretty close to the scrum and lineout in terms of importance. With an accurate kick and a coordinated, systematic chase, they become a big opportunity to win back possession.
Across the afternoon, Japan tested South Africa in this area. The Brave Blossoms mixed up their options too, attempting to catch out their opponents with short grubbers that barely crossed the 10-metre line.
Following Pollard’s penalty, replacement fly-half Yu Tamura stays conventional. He hoists the restart to give his forwards time to get underneath it:
Sure enough, Schalk Burger needs to be lifted by Francois Louw in order to claim the ball as Michael Leitch pressurises…
…and even then, the Japan skipper latches on in a ball-and-all tackle:
There is no forward momentum whatsoever. As South Africa recycle and Fourie du Preez moves in to move the ball away, Japan have time to set themselves. Prop Keita Inagaki adopts the guard position…
…and sprints up out of the line to harry first-receiver Pollard:
Even encroaching into the eye-line of a kicker can be enough to encourage an error. Inagaki’s off-the ball industry summed up that of his team over an amazing 80 minutes.
Ambition, organisation and ball retention
Just as full-back Ayumu Goromaru was deadly from the tee in accumulating five penalties and two conversions to go with a try, his positioning in back-field was superb.
As he takes Pollard’s long punt with ease, note Tamura working back to join the back three – more selfless, unseen teamwork:
Goromaru never ponders a return kick, recognising Japan would be better served to keep the ball in hand.
He snakes across-field before identifying two South Africa front-rowers in Adriaan Strauss and Coenie Oosthuizen and trying to slice through:
As Oosthuizen makes the tackle, Strauss – among the best pilferers in the world – threatens the ball. Lock Luke Thompson follows up, though…
…and clears the hooker robustly:
Japan retain possession and can instigate some sparky phase-play. Though Tanaka has left the field, they remained extremely cohesive and effective when hitting lines off their scrum-half around the ruck.
Indeed, Atsushi Hiwasa enjoyed an exceptional shift. Here, he crabs across to the left. This negates South Africa’s line-speed and leaves them flat-footed:
When wing Kotaro Matsushima comes back against the grain from wide angle, he is met by some passive defenders…
…and forces his way through both Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers and over the gain-line:
Japan have gathered impetus, but do not lose discipline. They persevere with a punchy approach.
Again Hiwasa takes a couple of steps to seem like a running threat himself before finding Thompson behind the rampaging decoy of Amanaki Mafi:
A spill from Leitch saw the move break down at this point, but Japan’s verve was obvious. And it would not die, either.
Strong set-piece and proactive defence
Japan’s scrum coach Marc dal Maso is a canny operator who has overseen drastic change. At the weekend, on either put-in, his charges did him proud.
Watch the copied body positions of the Japan pack as they prepare to engage…
…and how every forward is on the balls of his feet, straining forward but poised to make small adjustments:
Sure enough, a surge comes through the tight head side. And while Burger does well to pick up at the base and carry in a confined space…
…he is felled by Michael Broadhurst and Mafi:
Japan were relentless in defence and clever at the breakdown. Mafi personifies that in this instance, bouncing to his feet to compete on the floor:
du Preez is incensed and gesticulates towards referee Jerome Garces. If you are frustrating opposition scrum-halves, you are doing a decent job as a back-rower:
Garces does not appease du Preez and refuses to award a penalty, so South Africa opt to kick downfield.
Tanaka spent his match shooting up out of the defensive structure to cut off wider passes, and Hiwasa employs a similar tactic. He curves around, staying onside amid the glare of Garces but generating speed…
…and flies towards Pollard, again obstructing the kicker’s eye-line:
JP Pietersen manages to haul the ball in amid the attentions of Matsushima…
…and du Preez goes long from the base of the ensuing ruck despite another charge-down attempt from Inagaki:
South Africa were merely handing back possession, though.
Another outstanding counter
Again, Goromaru is the man to field the kick:
Once more, he does not think of using the boot. Instead, he fires a long pass right to Karne Hesketh.
Note that three Japan backs on the far side are busting a gut to get behind the ball:
This encourages Hesketh to launch an attack from deep. He draws Lood de Jager and sets away Harumichi Tatekawa…
…who steps off his right foot to attack the gap between de Villiers and a stretched Oosthuizen:
Tamura mirrors the line of Tatekawa. From a technical standpoint, this is important.
As Tatekawa fights through a tackle, Tamura propels him forward. This is something often seen by forwards in tight exchanges, but Japan used the technique all around the field:
Indeed, as the ball is spread left to Mafi…
…and the burly No 8 beats Pietersen…
…both Thompson and Goromaru flank their teammate to eat up more metres:
The premise is simple here – the weight and power of three men in contact is usually more effective that that of one, as Strauss finds out.
From here, Japan came into midfield before Tatekawa spotted a potential mismatch and a gap between prop Trevor Nyakane and du Preez.
Arcing around from the right, he attempts to pierce it:
A half-break saw Japan over the 22 and the attack continued. Inevitably, South Africa would win the odd collision.
Rather than panic and surrender possession though, Japan manoeuvred themselves into a more narrow shape. Hooker Takeshi Kizu is the carrier here, with Leitch and Thompson in support. Tamura is shouting instructions from behind:
Everyone is aware of their distinctive role – Kizu taking it up, Thompson latching on and Leitch clearing. As a result, Mafi stands back to offer himself for the next carry as Hiwasa circles around:
After Mafi’s carry, Tamura steps up to the front line – although making sure there are forwards inside him to hold the defence:
He has spotted a chance and calls for the ball, jinking past Louw:
As Burger scrambles back to make a last-ditch tackle, Japan flood through in support:
They are able to manufacture quick ball and run more angles off their scrum-half. This time, the pass goes in front of Matsushima to Broadhurst, who drops an inside ball to the effervescent Goromaru:
Only a challenge from du Preez saves a try…
…but Oosthuizen flops to the wrong side of the ruck to concede a penalty and earn a yellow card:
Measured pursuit of immortality
Given Goromaru’s form, aiming for three points from out wide was a sensible option that could have brought a famous draw. But Japan sensed momentum and wanted glory. Even so, they did not become reckless.
After the ball was put into the corner, a quick conference preceded the lineout…
…and Kizu kept his cool when a false start saw movement before referee Garces and touch-judge JP Doyle were ready:
Eventually, Kizu found Broadhurst – propelled skywards by a great lift from Thompson:
Leitch circled around…
…clasping onto the ball and securing it at the back while the maul nudges forward:
As backs fly in to add their ballast, Kizu is the key man. He recognises that South Africa has stalled the momentum and collapsed the near side, so forms a new pivot of the same maul:
Hiwasa calls the forwards on the near side back around…
…and Japan surge over the line. The television match official is called upon, and although no try is awarded, de Jager (number 19) is penalised for dragging down the maul:
Conviction, adaptability and execution
With no time for the lineout, another conference is called…
…and Leitch again goes for the win, taking a scrum:
Burger jumps the gun with the ball at the base, breaking his bind to concede a penalty:
Leitch sticks to his guns and asks for another scrum. Mafi takes a glance to suss out any potential openings…
…but keeps his head down as the shove comes on from Japan, controlling the ball beautifully as Hiwasa blocks off du Preez:
Garces orders a re-set as the front rows stand up, and South Africa power through on the next scrum.
Hiwasa again shields du Preez…
…which proves to be crucial as the ball shoots out of the set piece because Mafi can drop onto it…
…before Broadhurst and Thompson backpedal to resource the ruck and allow Japan to keep the ball:
Now Japan can return to their phase-play. Leitch – who else? – comes around the corner for a first foray, attacking the space between de Jager and du Preez:
Wing Hesketh flies into the ruck, personifying Japan’s commitment and nous across the board – he singles out the threat of Louw (number six) and disposes of him:
Two phases later, Leitch is on his feet again, taking a flat pass with support on either shoulder:
This time fly-half Tamura is on hand to muck in at the breakdown and secure possession:
Japan keep edging right, intent on using the full width of the playing surface.
Tracking across to the ball away, Hiwasa looks over his left shoulder. Clearly, a runner is loitering on the left side of the ruck:
Inevitably, it is Leitch. The Chief arcs all the way around, stretching the South Africa defence when he is found by Hiwasa’s swivel-pass:
With the stakes so high, he opts to take the ball into contact rather than risk a pass:
Japan did not register a single offload all match, instead putting faith in their ability to recycle.
When it came down to the wire, such an approach was vindicated. Leitch rides a high, hard challenge from Strauss…
…and Male Sa’u gets over the ball to haul it back. Now there is space on the left, so Japan bounce over.
Goromaru comes on a decoy line to hold the fringe tacklers – Japan never shirked the unglamorous roles – as Hiwasa plays in Tatekawa:
A miss-pass to Mafi wrong-foots Pollard…
…and a piston hand-off deals with an upright Jesse Kriel:
Mafi’s scoring pass is timed very nicely…
…allowing Hesketh to skate over for glory:
Japan, now firmly entrenched as the darlings of Rugby World Cup 2015, face Scotland on Wednesday at Kingsholm. They must feel weary, but can be buoyed by a sensational triumph over the two-time world champions. And it was far from a fluke.
Jones has developed a regimented side that plays with calm assurance and conviction in their structure and skills – all of those things shone through in this wonderful ten minutes. Their progress in Pool B will be fascinating.